The importance of voting is something that is known to the vast majority of students at this University. As a polling clerk at the last European Parliament election, I was delighted to see many St Andrews students turning out to vote, making sure their voices are heard (and making sure I was kept very busy). This event, “Democracy, Voting, and Representation in the Past and Present”, covered the history, foundations and ideas of democracy, with the overall theme being to encourage attendees to spread the message about democracy and to get people out to vote. Presidents of several political societies from St Andrews were present with laptops ready to get people registered to vote.
The event consisted of four main speakers; two academics from the School of Classics, Doctor Jon Hesk and Professor Tom Harrison, Joel Moore (President of the School of Classics), and Jamie Rodney (Students Association President).
Starting with the academics, Professor Tom Harrison, who specialises in ancient Greek history, focussed mainly on giving us the background and history of democracy. He stated that no democratic system is perfect and emphasised the death of democracy and how we should never be complacent. He cited Greece slipping into an oligarchical tyranny which resulted in 46 cities having their residents killed or sold into slavery, and a further 56 razed to the ground. He stated that democracies die in apathy and that it was vital that we keep democracy alive by participating, and not allow the mistakes of the past to repeat. Now you, like me, are probably thinking: “Ancient Greece was a long time ago, just because their democracy failed doesn’t mean ours will”. However, Professor Harrison made a fascinating comparison between then and now. Athenian democracy was a form of direct democracy. It wasn’t perfect, but it was new and totally different from anything else in the world at that point in time. The reason the entire system was built was due to a public fear of power being held by a smaller, elite group of people who put their interests ahead of that of the general public; a parliament against the people. Parliament vs The People is a phrase we hear a lot in Britain today.
Dr Jon Hesk mainly focussed his discussion on the importance of citizens assemblies as a way to bring back direct democracy while still keeping our representative democracy in place. This isn’t an entirely new concept, as citizens assemblies have been created in Wales and are under consideration here in Scotland. However, it was his views on representative democracy that struck me. He stated that, because David Cameron promised the result of the EU referendum would be respected and enacted, people now consider their MPs to be delegates for the electorate’s views. He claimed that this was not how representative democracy is supposed to work and that our representatives must be able to do what they feel is right and not be tied down by public opinion. This, to me, struck as a great attack on the Brexit campaign’s claims that MPs must enact “the will of the people” because people voted on it.
For the journey home, I gave Josh Samuels, President of the Brexit Society, one of the presidents present, a lift back to his house. I took this opportunity to ask what he thought of Dr Hesk’s view that MPs are not delegates for their electorate’s views. Mr Samuels had this to say:
“I couldn’t disagree more. It’s quite simple really; we elect our Members of Parliament to represent our views, the idea that MPs can just disregard the views of the people that voted for them is undemocratic.”
The second half of the event consisted of two student voices. Joel Moore highlighted the importance of voting, in particular in this constituency of North East Fife. Our current MP is holding on to his seat by just two votes, so if just two people vote differently in this election, our current MP could lose his seat. This is especially important with the likelihood of another hung parliament being the result of the next election ever increasing. That means just one MP could flip the control of parliament, and therefore take control of the future of this country.
Jamie Rodney spoke about the importance of getting people registered to vote, as registering to vote yourself isn’t enough anymore. We need to start convincing our friends and family members to get out and vote because there has never been a more critical time to be politically engaged… at least that’s what I think he was getting at. Jamie Rodney really just stood up, showed us a picture of a squirrel and said: “This, as you can see, is a squirrel” which told us all that we needed to know about democracy.